Monday, 10 June 2019

Onyx Boox Nova review: An e-reader with stable and feature rich software

The Nova series is Onyx’s 7.8 inches line of e-readers. There are two models in the Nova series: Nova and Nova Pro. The former does not support stylus input and the latter does support stylus input for note taking. In terms of hardware, other than stylus input, both devices are near identical. The main hardware difference, other than stylus input, is the Nova Pro’s flush display.

The main competitor in the 7.8 inches Android e-reader category is the Likebook Mars. Like the Nova, Likebook Mars does not support stylus input (the Likebook Mimas is Boyue’s stylus supported model). Accordingly, as both devices target the same user base, I will frequently compare the Likebook Mars to the Boox Nova in this review.

Hardware 

Like the Likebook Mars, the Boox Nova is a powerful e-reader. The Nova’s Cortex-A17 1.6GHz quad-core processor is slightly better than the Likebook Mars’s, but the performance difference is hardly noticed considering the device’s primary purpose, i.e. reading. The relatively powerful processor means the Onyx Boox Nova handles larger PDF documents with ease; in comparison, Kindle and Kobo e-readers can struggle with these documents.

The 32GB storage is enough but Onyx should’ve added an SD Card to further expand the storage. The support of SD Cards, other than expanding storage, also means documents can be stored externally and this makes the transfer of a library and a factory re-set much easier. The Likebook Mars, in comparison, has only 16GB storage but does support an external SD Card. The Nova also has 2GB memory and this makes multitasking smooth.

The Nova’s display quality is slightly better than Likebook Mars – text on the Nova appears crisper and clearer (I am not considering contrast settings that increase black levels and text thickness but don’t affect clarity). However, I still think the text could be clearer on the Nova (in my view, the Kobo Aura One and Kobo Forma's displays are the benchmarks to rank e-readers against). I like the front light on the Nova - it is even and with little shadowing at the bottom of the screen. It is also possible to sync the cold and warmer lights to get a more balanced colour. The Likebook Mars’s front light is worse and by default, it is only possible to turn on either the white or the warmer orange colour front light. Overall, the Nova's front light is excellent and is one of the best I’ve seen on a larger e-reader. Below is a front light comparison picture:

Click on image to enlarge: the Onyx Boox Nova (right) has a better front light in comparison to the Likebook Mars (left).

Software 

The Nova’s software has its problems, but it is still more intuitive and stable in comparison to the Likebook Mars. Below are some problems:
  • In the native e-reader (Neo-Reader) a font family’s styles, e.g., bold, italic, semi-bold, are all listed. Consequently, there is a long list of font styles that the user needs to navigate to find a suitable font. Also, strangely, Onyx decided to load the e-reader with too many pre-installed fonts (I couldn’t find a way to delete these fonts). It is a better idea if Neo-Reader just listed the font family’s name and pre-loaded the e-reader with a select number of fonts that can also be easily deleted. 
  • Highlighting text is smooth in e-books. In PDF documents, overall, highlighting – of course, the specific PDF document also plays a part – can be hit and miss. Further, in PDF documents pinch-to-zoom can be buggy. For example, a page is re-aligned to the far right for no reason after re-entering a PDF document from reader settings.
  • I noticed the Nova doesn’t handle some third-party applications well. The screen flickers in key third-party applications – e.g., KOReader and Liberera Pro –  when selecting menu items or highlighting text. 
  • Setting personal wallpapers for the lock screen is confusing. There is no option to set screensavers in the settings menu. To change a screensaver the user must go to the screensaver directory via file manager. In the file manager, the user needs to long press an image and then select the image as one of three possible standby screensavers. Often, I found, the function does not operate correctly. For example, I tried to reset the screensaver back to the default image, but this wasn’t always successful. 
  • Exported annotations and highlights, like Mars, are chronologically outputted by date and time. Amazon, to compare, exports annotations according to e-book location number (sometimes, depending on the e-book’s formatting, annotations and highlights appear under header name). 
Overall, Onyx’s software, in comparison to Boyue, is more stable and with more features. It also handles page refreshes in its native e-reading software – a problem that has blighted Android e-readers – better. Onyx, in my view, produced a user-friendly Android e-reader. Below are some positives:
  • Pinch to zoom works well. Many e-readers – due to the limitations of E-Ink - don’t handle the feature very well. The fluidity of the pinch to zoom feature helps a lot when getting the right zoom level in a PDF document. Further, there is a feature that locks the zoom level, and this makes the scrolling of a document easier. 
  • PDF support is very good. The capable processor and optimised software mean even the largest PDF documents can be read and navigated smoothly. Cropping features are also very good and it is possible to crop a two columns document and the direction of reading for better navigation. 
  • Highlighting text is fluid and accurate in e-books. There are also many highlighting features, e.g., the option to underline a highlighted text or to invert the background. There is even the option to choose the underline style too. 
  • Similar to the Kindle e-readers it is possible to open a window to navigate the e-book in multi-page view.
  • Like Boyue’s e-readers, there is the option to alter the contrast and bold levels. There is also the option to separately alter image contrast. The distinction between text and image contrast, in contrast to the Likebook Mars, does work well. In the Likebook Mars changing image contrast also affects the text. In PDF documents, understandably, the distinction between text and image contrast alterations depends on the viewed document’s pre-set formatting. 
  • Onyx's native software is very good at handling e-book formatting - there are none of the problems with spacing that you get on the Likebook Mars. 
  • Translation of menus and settings are mostly done well. The Likebook Mars, in comparison, has serious issues with translation. There is also a detailed user manual that can be accessed on the device. 
Third-party applications 

I experienced flickering problems with some third-party applications. Specifically, I’ve tried two E-Ink friendly applications – KOReader and Librera Pro – and both had the same flickering problem when selecting menu interface items. To remedy the problem, I had to activate A2 mode, but this meant a lot of ghosting and a stained reading surface (click here to see two video clips that demonstrate this problem. The first clip demonstrates the flickering problem in normal refresh mode. The second clip demonstrates the absence of flickering after activating A2 refresh mode). I didn’t experience the same issue when using Likebook Mars.

Other than the issue of flickering there are the expected problems of using Android applications on E-Ink e-readers. As I stated in the Likebook Mars review, most Android applications are not usable on an Android e-reader and while A2 mode does make scrolling quicker, the ghosting and staining lead to poor user experience.

Summary and verdict 

The Onyx Boox Nova is one of the better Android e-readers. The screen is slightly better than the Likebook Mars and the native software is more stable and user-friendly. The Onyx Boox Nova excels with its front light - the Nova’s front light, in comparison to the Likebook Mars, is superior and allows the user to easily mix white and warmer lights. However, the Likebook Mars is slightly cheaper and handles some third-party applications better. Both devices have capable hardware and the question is if the better screen, front light and software are worth the extra cost.

Another major issue to consider is that Onyx, despite recently releasing the Onyx Boox Nova, no longer sells the device and it is also harder to find third-party sellers that sell it too. The Likebook Mars is easier to find and is fulfilled by Prime on Amazon for quick delivery. I think if the user does not need a stylus and is comfortable using Boyue’s software then, considering the ease of availability, the Likebook Mars is the better option (Boyue software, even if buggy, is capable and usable).

Monday, 27 May 2019

Onyx Boox's confusing line of e-readers

Onyx Boox is probably the largest alternative vendor that specialises in larger e-readers. I use the Onyx Boox Nova and prefer it to the Likebook Mars (the software is better and build quality is superior).

However, there is a problem in Onyx releasing a device before quickly discontinuing the product. For example, despite the Onyx Boox Note Lite being released late 2018 it is not even listed as a product on the official website. There was also the recent release of the Boox Nova, but the e-reader is not sold officially by Onyx. Only the stylus supported Nova Pro is available.

Other than quickly discontinuing devices there is also the confusing list of e-readers. For example, the non-stylus Note Lite was released as part of the Note line despite having no stylus input note-taking capabilities. In the Note line, there are, now, officially three e-readers. The differences between these e-readers are significant and the user needs to be careful that they don’t order a device that doesn’t meet their needs. I think the Note line only needs two e-readers: a premium model and a more affordable one.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

The Kindle Paperwhite is the best six-inch e-reader

Recently we’ve seen the expansion of e-readers in different sizes. I’ll dedicate three posts to three different screen sizes: six-inches, seven-inches and eight-inches. This post is dedicated to six-inch e-readers and in that category, the Kindle Paperwhite is the one to choose. I’ll justify the Kindle Paperwhite considering Amazon’s entry-level Kindle, what Kobo offers and why it is not sensible to consider a six-inch e-reader by alternative vendors:
  1. The price differential between the Paperwhite and Kindle Basic is reasonable. The £50 difference gets you twice the storage, near twice the resolution, better front lighting and water-proofing. The same cannot be said about the £110 price difference between Oasis 2 and Paperwhite. Overall, the Paperwhite gives you the best value – if only it came in different sizes! 
  2. The Kindle Paperwhite is also better than Kobo’s two six-inch e-readers (Kobo Clara HD and Kobo Aura Edition 2). The superiority of the Paperwhite is in Amazon’s firmware. Kobo might offer richer typographical features but is overall well behind. The main difference is Amazon extensive cloud-based infrastructure. Amazon syncs not only purchased books but also personal documents. The syncing service not only includes page location but also annotations, categorising e-books in collections, wirelessly sending e-books to a Kindle device and the ability to manage collections online. If you want to use an e-reader to organise a library of personal content, then the Paperwhite is the better option in comparison to Kobo’s six-inch offerings. 
  3. Finally, it doesn’t make sense to buy a six-inch e-reader from an alternative vendor. In my opinion, Boyue and Onyx e-readers fill the gap when it comes to larger e-readers that are suitable for PDF documents and note-taking. The six-inch size is suitable mainly for e-books and nothing beats the stable and intuitive firmware that you get on Kindle devices.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Recommended third-party applications for Android e-readers

I've recently started using the Onyx Boox Nova. Before using the Onyx Boox Nova I've used the Likebook Mars and Boyue T80 (rebranded as Icarus Illumina XL). Overall, I prefer Android e-readers to mainstream e-readers. One of the positives of Android e-readers is the possibility to install third-party applications. Below is a list of applications that work well on E-Ink Android devices:

Simplenote: Simplenote is a note-taking application developed by Automattic (the company behind WordPress). It is a no frill scaled-down application to write text-only notes. It is possible to connect a Bluetooth keyboard to an Android e-reader to write quick notes in Simplenote and then access these notes on other devices.

Moon+ Reader Pro: Moon+ Reader is, in my view, the best Android e-reading application. The application isn't optimised for E-Ink but works relatively well with the right changes, e.g. side loading fonts with added weight, choosing the bold option for thinner fonts and turning the background white and text black. Another positive is that Moon+ Reader mainly uses a grey palette for its menus that are legible on E-Ink devices. Also, many Android e-reader vendors now support extra features to optimise third-party applications for E-Ink. One useful feature is the contrast enhancement of menus that make user interface menus clearer.

KOReader: This one is a no brainer. KOReader is designed and optimised specifically for E-Ink. It is a stand-alone application that can be used to read e-books and PDF documents. I found the application is more stable on Kobo devices due to hardware uniformity. Android e-readers, on the other hand, vary a lot and use different processors. For example, KOReader is stable on the Likebook Mars but the screen flickers on the Onyx Boox Nova when selecting menus and highlighting text (the only way to stop this flickering is to turn on A2 mode).

Librera Pro: Librera Pro is designed to work on both tablets and Android e-readers. For example, the application includes a PDF scroll mode that makes navigating pages smoother on an e-reader. Other options include contrast and brightness enhancement to make text appear bolder and darker. The monochrome menus are also designed to work on E-Ink.

Writer+: Writer+ is a stripped-down writer application. Writer+ supports text markdown – a useful feature as there is no need for animated user menus. One negative is that there is no option to manually change orientation to landscape. This is a problem as most Android e-readers don't support auto-rotation and, so far, Boyue and Onyx don't allow the user to manually rotate the display in third-party applications. 

There are other applications that work on E-Ink Android devices. Other applications that are functional include Wikipedia, Kobo, Google Keep, Gmail and Amazon Kindle. However, many of these applications are designed with animated menus and colours that make text appear faded and navigation frustrating and slow. There are also very little options to manipulate text appearance in these applications. Both Boyue and Onyx support A2 mode to make downwards scrolling and internet browsing smoother, but the downside is a lot of ghosting. It is a definite positive that it is possible, for example, to read Wikipedia articles on an e-reader but it is more convenient to access these articles on a tablet, laptop or smartphone. The same applies to most Android applications.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

KOReader improvements

Recent nightly updates of KOReader have added useful features. First, the software is zippier than before - previously changing reading settings meant a lag as the user waits for their changes to take effect. I've also noticed that the recent Kobo build performs better than the Android version (I tested the Android version on a Likebook Mars). While KOReader's performance optimization has improved significantly it is still behind Kindle and Kobo's e-reading software. Hopefully, future updates will gradually improve performance. Other improvements include smoother highlighting of text and a gradient scale, similar to Kobo e-readers, to control margin and line spacing. To download nightly builds, visit this website.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

An instructional manual for the Likebook Mars

Boyue recently sent an update for the Likebook Mars. After the update, I noticed a new instruction application icon that opens a user manual for the Likebook Mars. The manual isn't extensive - it guides the user, for example, how to manage bookshelf settings, how to upload books via Wi-Fi, where to place dictionaries, how to access the third-party applications features menu and how to upgrade the software etc. However, it doesn't tell the user what the purpose of many of these features is.

Anyway, it is a positive Boyue are now working on providing instructional content. One of the weaknesses of the Likebook Mars is its confusing software and this manual does help guide the user where to find key features. 

Friday, 22 March 2019

Amazon Fire HD 10 shortcomings

I like the Fire HD 10 a lot. The screen quality is very good, and you don't get big compromises with performance as you do with the Fire 7 and to a lesser extent the Fire HD 8. However, there are shortcomings that Amazon needs to rectify in future hardware updates if it wants to keep up with budget tablets offered by Huawei and Lenovo (some battery issues and the special offers problem stated below can be resolved with software updates). First, is the problem of battery drainage in standby mode. The battery discharges alarmingly in standby - I would estimate the Fire HD 10 loses 10% battery every eight hours. To remedy this problem, I permanently disabled Alexa and turned-off WiFi when not using the tablet.

Second, are the animated special offers advertisements. Many of these advertisements slow down the tablet when turned on and some freeze the tablet; to get the tablet working again you often need to force a restart. The problem of animated special offers is a bigger problem with the slower Fire 7 and Fire HD 8. Most of the animated advertisements are for games.

The biggest problem is battery life in general. Amazon overestimates the Fire HD 10's battery life to be "up to 10 hours". With more lighter tasks like reading, don't expect more than eight hours of mixed usage. On average battery life is 6 - 7 hours and that is not good enough. To improve battery life, it is a good idea to disable Alexa. I also noticed, sometimes, the top back of the Fire HD 10 can get very warm. The extra warmth means something is taxing the processor and draining the battery.

There are other minor quibbles too. Of course, this personal preference, but I think the iPad's 4:3 aspect ratio is easier to hold and is better at displaying content. Amazon is more focused on Prime video content, so you get the 16:9 aspect ratio. The negative of the16:9 aspect ratio is accentuated with big bezels that make the device cumbersome to hold. Huawei and Lenovo both use the same aspect ratio, but their tablets are designed with less footprint.